Accommodating an Unexpected Guest

The intellectual trends of modernity in the Middle East

Authored by: Kaveh Tagharobi , Ali Zarei

The Modernist World

Print publication date:  June  2015
Online publication date:  June  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415845038
eBook ISBN: 9781315778334
Adobe ISBN: 9781317696162


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Exploring modernity and its intellectual trends in the Middle East is a very fitting endeavour, as ‘Middle East’ itself is a ‘modern’ term which has only become common since the early twentieth century. The fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 and its partitioning into Turkey and the new Arab countries was a key moment in the evolution of the region known as the Middle East. The emergence of new nation-states and their encounter with the modern West led to other influential political and cultural events, which in turn contributed to the experience of modernity and modernism. These experiences differ from country to country; however, we can give a brief account of modernity and modernism in this region by breaking it down into the Arab-speaking world, including Egypt, Iraq, Bilad Al-Sham (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) and Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya) on one hand; and Iran and Turkey on the other. 1 Modernism in the Middle East corresponds to three main intellectual currents in which a will to change was manifest among thinkers, activists, and artists. The first movements toward reform started in the nineteenth century and culminated with the introduction of constitutions and parliaments into the Persian, 2 Arab, and Ottoman monarchies. The second current of modernism was concerned with what can be called ‘nativism’. This period saw Middle Eastern intellectuals looking for native sources of progress and success, as opposed to the first period, which was characterized by a fascination with the West. In the third intellectual current, a strong desire for development opens the way for more liberal values, causing fundamental shifts in the political sphere. In this period, academics try to analyze their societies with the modern critical tools they have borrowed from Western disciplines. While aesthetic modernism flourished in these three periods, the intellectual experience of modernity has faced problems. Facing modernity at a time of decline, the rapid rhythm of the events in the last 100 years, and the colonial presence of the West have complicated the politically unstable Middle East, making the transition into modernity a rough path.

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